Tennessee attorney general steers energy toward pregnancy center fundraising

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is raising funds for anti-abortion clinics, like the Hope Clinic in Nashville, seen here. / Tennessee Lookout Photo by John Partipilo

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is putting state resources into fundraising for "crisis pregnancy centers" across the nation, including one with ties to Gov. Bill Lee, as the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision arrives.

Skrmetti's office announced Tuesday he is joining Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch in holding a multistate donation drive to back more than 60 anti-abortion counseling centers this week.

"Tennesseans have made clear, through their elected representatives, the desire to support mothers and children," Skrmetti said in the statement. "In celebration of the Dobbs decision, I'm proud to highlight the organizations in our state who go above and beyond to provide resources and care for mothers-to-be."

Lee wanted to put $100 million toward the centers this year, clinics that some abortion rights groups criticize as pressuring women to avoid abortions. The legislature cut that to $20 million after negotiations with the governor's office, and Senate Finance Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said more discussion is needed on what the centers do.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee proposes $100 million for anti-abortion centers)

The centers are accused of giving women misleading information on abortion and contraception while backers say they offer critical services to women, including counseling, parenting classes, food and clothes, according to an Associated Press report.

Since being appointed in 2022, Skrmetti has made a practice of joining attorneys general across the nation in efforts to fight policies of President Joe Biden's administration.

Tennessee's Republican-controlled legislature immediately made abortion illegal when a "trigger ban" kicked in, then adopted a narrow exception during the 2023 session for women experiencing deadly pregnancies. No exceptions were made for rape and incest.

Memphis attorney Brian Faughnan, an expert on legal ethics, said Tuesday nothing in Tennessee ethics rules prohibits Skrmetti's latest project.

(READ MORE: Abortions drop in Tennessee amid ban)

"I think if the tenure of this attorney general is teaching the people of Tennessee anything, it is that we are in a very bad spot by having an attorney general who is essentially not able to be held accountable by anyone," Faughnan said.

The Tennessee Supreme Court appoints the attorney general for an eight-year term, and it isn't clear that the legislature could remove him if members regretted his performance, Faughnan said. He added, though, that as long as the Republican Party controls state government, Skrmetti will feel he has "the necessary support to pursue any and every MAGA cause" and to hire enough outside counsel to defend the litigation caused by the legislature.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, backed Skrmetti's fundraising effort Tuesday.

McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said Tuesday the lieutenant governor "has absolutely no problem with the attorney general being involved in a charitable effort to help mothers and children in crisis."

Lawmakers approved $2.25 million for 10 more attorneys within the department for a "strategic litigation unit." Another $4.3 million in the budget is targeted for special litigation, which involves hiring outside counsel.

(READ MORE: Tennessee legislature frequently embroiled in litigation)

Democrats question the attorney general's use of state resources.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the attorney general should concentrate on his role as the state's chief law enforcer and added the attorney general is not publicly elected for a reason.

"The overtly politically partisan manner in which Jonathan has conducted himself since day one is beneath the dignity of the office," Clemmons said. "While he should be focused on promoting the rule of law, he's using state resources to fundraise and promote his own political agenda, which is both ethically suspect and a questionable use of taxpayer dollars."

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, agreed, saying the attorney general should spend his time defending the constitution instead of going on "political crusades." Mitchell noted it is inappropriate for anyone in the judicial system to be political, whether a Democrat or Republican.

The attorney general's emailed news release includes an interactive list enabling people to see pregnancy centers' wish lists and encourages them to buy numerous items.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

  photo  Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti / tn.gov photo